Social change in a time of social distance

Hi. Your friendly neighborhood facilitator here.

Have you been getting a lot of messages about how your local library, every nonprofit you know, and that furniture store that somehow has your email address are all responding to coronavirus?

This isn't one of those emails. But if you've been wondering what the pandemic means for social change work—then let's explore.

Despite the massive uncertainty, a few things seem clear.

First, our goals will shift. A pandemic will hit hardest those who are already marginalized or vulnerable: anyone who is poor, elderly, disabled, immigrant, uninsured, working class, incarcerated, and more. It also will (already is) shifting our politics—but will the frame of that shift go beyond blame, extending to a new appreciation for the value of a social safety net? Of good governance, expertise, and the civil service? What happens if the pandemic has disproportionate impacts across political divides: young v. old and rural v. urban?

Second, we must change how we work: more flexible, more distributed, more virtual. A few folks have pointed out that the shift toward more virtual/remote collaboration should already be underway, for climate reasons if not for work-life balance. I've had several clients embed this shift into their strategies or plans in recent years, e.g. with commitments to distribute staff globally. The pandemic will force more teams to move in this direction.

Finally, things will get worse before they get better. The strategic and programmatic dimensions shouldn't detract from the deeply personal ones: the pandemic will bring a lot of anxiety and risk to those doing social change work. Wash your hands and keep your distance—but also be generous, and take care of each other.

In the US, Democrats are more worried about coronavirus than Republicans. (via The Economist)

Scenarios and risks

As mentioned, it's hard to say what comes next. But some smart people are helping us see around the next corner.

Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to "flatten the curve"

Still getting your head around the dynamics of the pandemic and why we need to be social distancing now? Check out these animated models from Washington Post graphics reporter Harry Stevens.

How might a pandemic affect US society and politics in 2020?

Eli Pariser, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and others shared a read-out on a recent gathering of activists, organizers, and technologists on the potential knock-on effects of a pandemic. They explored the political impacts (on campaigning, in-person voting, and the framing of issues like health care or paid sick leave), the differential impacts on immigrant and other vulnerable communities, the implications for institutional leadership and governance, and more.

Social Justice in a time of Social Distancing

Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstein look at what the coronavirus response implies for social arrangements that focus us on individuality over collective action—and how to rebuild politics during and after the pandemic.

How a bad response to coronavirus will make things worse

Sociologist, humanitarian consultant, and science fiction author (whew!) Malka Older talks about the importance of social capital and trust in disaster responses, and how a bad response can undermine these and fracture communities based on which sources they trust.

What the fight against Ebola can teach us about beating the coronavirus

In a similar vein, Accountability Lab founder Blair Glencorse recounts the role of governance, trust, and community organizing in Liberia's 2014 Ebola response.

On the Frontlines of the Pandemic, Local Philanthropy Scrambles to Respond

Paul Karon writes for Inside Philanthropy on how community foundations in Seattle and Westchester are trying to support nonprofits and vulnerable communities.

How the Coronavirus Revealed Authoritarianism’s Fatal Flaw

The always-insightful Zeynep Tufekci on how censorship in China makes it harder for not only citizens but also those in power to know what's happening.

Bonus: Plagues follow bad leadership in ancient Greek tales

Famines are man-made. So are pandemics.

There's an important idea from the humanitarian sector that famines are not natural disasters. They're not caused by crop loss or droughts or even a lack of food. There's always enough food in this world: it's just not reaching the people who need it.

Famines are caused by market failures, and government inability or unwillingness to respond. A drought may be natural, but a famine is man-made.

It's slowly dawning on folks that the same is true of pandemics. There are lots of nasty bugs in the world. But it takes a special cluster of institutional failures to get us where we are today.

As Malka Older writes: "The virus itself is natural, but our human interaction with it—the way the response is being managed by various governments and institutions—can become a self-inflicted disaster."

This idea has implications for the story we tell ourselves about how we got here, and for what happens next. Was this a circumstance beyond anyone's control? An unavoidable outgrowth of globalization? The failure of government in general?

There's little to suggest that authoritarian-leaning regimes (China, Iran) are any better or worse at containing pandemics than democratic-leaning ones (Italy, South Korea, USA). But while both have failed, they've failed differently.

The weakness of authoritarianism is the need to maintain the illusion of strength, which manifested in China censoring early reports while the epidemic spread. Once the government acknowledged the problem, their response got kudos from the World Health Organization, even as it enacted draconian measures that may not have been necessary if they'd responded sooner.

In contrast, the United States is plagued by censorship-via-noise, a hollowed-out administrative state, and a lack of positive leadership from the top. These have become core features of our besieged form of democracy, especially in the last three years. Now that state and local officials are starting to respond, we see some gritted determination and maybe even anxious optimism about the road ahead.

In the social change sectors, the question for our long-term response is: do we treat pandemics as merely global health problems, requiring better early warning systems and medical supply stockpiles? Or are they (also) institutional and governance problems—requiring greater investments in democracy, civil service, independent media, anti-disinformation, and collective action?

From a post I wrote a few years ago: "On the non-flatness of the world"

Virtual and distributed collaboration

There's a lot of advice floating around—see below—on how to shift toward virtual, remote, and distributed collaboration. The common theme: be deliberate and intentional about the shift. Don't just expect a slack channel to replace in-person convos, or slide your regular agenda into a zoom call. Take this moment to design how you work together, and you may find yourself forced into creative methods that make you more effective than you were before.

Remote/virtual work and management

Workshops, meetings and conferences

Bonus: Your Colleagues Don’t Read Anything You Write. Here Are 8 Ways to Change That. - straightforward advice on better professional writing, which was always important but may be even more so now.


In non-pandemic news:

Updates from the work

It's been a busy few months. I recently wrapped up a strategy and implementation planning process for a major open government organization, and I'm winding down a similar process for another in the same sector. Separately, I've been supporting a new organization set their strategy on corporate accountability in the food sector. And I've been working with a few other consultants to research the needs of frontline anti-corruption reformers.

But a pandemic isn't great news for a business built on facilitation. Another client has switched their upcoming team retreat to a virtual format, which can be effective but loses some je ne sais quoi. Other potential workshops are temporarily on hold while we all figure out this new world.

Are you moving to remote or virtual methods? Drop me a line, even if you don't need an outside facilitator. I'll be interested to hear how your team is adjusting and I'm happy to soundboard some ideas to smooth the transition.

- Dave